History of Violence: Interview with Director Cronenberg

David taps into very primal ideas and emotions. He goes into something much darker and deeper, showing us scary things that you can’t just walk away from. He gets very deep inside our darkest psychology, and that can be very frightening.
Josh Olson

The Script

I found the screenplay compelling. Loosely based on the graphic novel, Josh’s Olson script is a Midwest American small town story. There was something classic about it without being imitative.

I don’t normally undertake family dramas, but I felt for the characters and the Stall family. It does have a powerful emotional resonance. A married couple with two kids are trying to live an open, straightforward honest life, and finding it difficult to do that. So I fell for that classical element.”

Hitchcockian Premise

It’s mainstream to a certain extent, but it has some very disturbing and interesting undercurrents. I thought it was an interesting kind of thriller, because it’s not a normal kind of thriller. It’s like a Hitchcock thriller where an innocent man is mistaken by some very scary people for someone else and drawn into a world that hed rather not know anything about. His life and the lives of his family are endangered because of this mistaken identity. The film clicks into several intriguing things, but then derails in a very interesting way.

Characters’ Names

Among other alterations, we changed the names of the organized crime members from Italian to Irish in order to distance them from the mafia.


I couldn’t have asked for a better cast than Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, and William Hurt. The tone is of seriously good acting, a profound dedication to the roles and digging deep into the characters.

Meeting Viggo

We initially met Mortensen at a party for “Lord of the Rings” at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, and we agreed that they should work together. I thought that the script of “History of Violence” would be really right for Viggo. Subsequently, we met in L.A. to discuss it in detail: the character, what changes I wanted to make and what worried Viggo or didn’t make sense to him.

Working with Viggo

We found that we were very much in sync. Viggo does his homework and thinks about things a lot. He helped to create his character. I always go through a script after Ive brought in the cast to make it feel more natural for them. It’s very collaborative.

Viggo is my kind of actor. I like to work with actors who are not just leading men, but also character actors. They tend not to be afraid, because theyre not trying to protect some image they see of themselves as traditional leading men, and this gives them a much bigger palette to paint from, because they have all kinds of edges. I like a kind of eccentricity that is more typical of a character actor than a leading man, and yet still has a leading man presence and charisma.

Viggo was perfect. He is not only a charismatic leading man, but also the combination of other qualities that made me feel he had the depth to play a very complex role. He is a maniac for detail, which I love. He is very focused and obsessed with details of how his character would move, speak and dress. It’s really quite spectacular to watch him work and to interact with him. After two weeks of working closely, we felt like brothers.

Maria Bello

When we met in Toronto, Maria didn’t know about the film. We met about something else, but all the time, I was thinking she would be really good for this story. She and Viggo make a very believable married couple, the age and the tone were right.

Maria was a real discovery for me. When I saw her in “The Cooler”, the movie showed what she could do in terms of subtlety, a kind of really vulnerable sexuality that was very real. I thought she could play this very complex, and yet at the same time, simple character who is a small-town lawyer who embraces the energy, closeness and comfort of a small town with a lot of energy and enthusiasm, not brow-beaten by that but rather empowered by it. I thought she could bring all of those qualities to this character, which, as things unfold in the movie, undergoes some profound changes and discovers hidden aspects of herself. In some ways, it’s a mirror image of what Tom Stall’s character goes through.

You really believe Maria as a small-town prom queen who then becomes quite a strong character within that town where she is a highly respected lawyer. And I needed her also to be a very sexual presence, because that is a key element in this story as well. For a role like this, you need to find an actor who is unafraid. It was obvious from “The Cooler” that Maria is not afraid, which was one of the things that attracted me to her as an actress.

Viggo and Maria’s Sex Lives

Tom’s act of violence provokes changes in Edie. There are some dark sexual scenes, which required a particular kind of trust. I think the sex lives of your characters are important. To shy away from it can limit the depth of exploration of the character. I thought it was important to see Maria responding to both the contrasting sex scenes before and after Tom discovers hidden depths of violence in him.

Ed Harris

Ed is someone Ive admired for years. I thought he had the toughness, the presence and the charisma to carry off this character. I wanted him to be very real, very intense. He thinks he has a history of violence with the main character, which is why he appears in Stall’s diner. And that is a critical moment in the movie. Ed connected with Viggo in an intense way, and was also very serious about the details of everything from the scar, to the eye, to the clothes, to the body language, to the hair to make this character come alive and be real onscreen. So his style just fit in completely perfectly with what had been developed up to that point on the set with Viggo and Maria.

William Hurt

William unearthed some incredible subtleties and unexpected layers of meanings from the dialogue, which is exactly what I wanted. As with the Carl Fogarty role, it’s a relatively small role in terms of screen time. But it’s absolutely a critical role. It has to be compelling, convincing, charismatic, scary and profound. So I really needed an actor of great substance to play that role.

The Film’s Violence

In this film, I wanted the violence to be very realistic, brutal and tight. It was about real brutality and the kind of violence that you would actually see on a street fight, for example, ungainly and not too graceful, very bloody and not very pretty, the opposite of balletic slow-motion choreographed sequences seen in other pictures. The way the violence is structured in this movie narratively, the violence that the main character commits, is all justifiable. So the Tom Stall character is forced into violence when there was really not much of an alternative for him. At the same time, we don’t cover up the fact that the violence that he commits now has very nasty consequences for the people who are the subject of the violence.

I think you come away with thinking that violence is an unfortunate but very real and unavoidable part of human existence. And we don’t turn away from it, and you can’t really say that it’s never justified. You can say that it’s never very attractive, though, and that is the approach weve taken.

Human Nature’s Dark Side

A lot of artists are drawn to the dark side of human nature because it’s hidden, it’s unexplored, and you have a desire to shine light in the dark corners. You feel like a detective, and you also feel like someone who is not satisfied with what is presented as normal or a status quo. The desire of an artist, like a scientist, is to not accept at face value what most people accept, but to dig deep underneath the surface of things to see where things originate and what goes on there. So that often leads you to scary, negative or forbidden stuff. But I don’t think the desire is only to know what’s negative, it’s to know what is real, and there are many layers to reality.

Cronenberg’s Career

Cronenberg’s reputation as an auteur has been firmly established by his personal body of work including the films for which he wrote the scripts: “Shivers,” “Rabid,” “Fast Company,” “The Brood,” “Scanners,” “Videodrome,” “The Fly,” “Dead Ringers,” “Naked Lunch,” “Crash,” and “eXistenZ.” The films he directed from screenplays by other writers are “The Dead Zone,” “M. Butterfly,” “Spider,” and “A History of Violence.”

His films have won him awards and recognition around the world, among which is an Honorary Doctor of Law Degree from the University of Toronto, which he received in June 2001. He has been an Officer in France’s prestigious “Order of Arts and Letters” since 1997. In 1999, he presided over the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival. Retrospectives of his work have been held in Japan, USA, UK, France, Brazil, Italy, Portugal and Canada.

Books on Cronenberg include “The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg,” “The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg,” and “Cronenberg on Cronenberg,” in addition to a collection of interviews published by the French magazine, “Cahiers du Cinema.”

Born on March 15, 1943 in Toronto, Cronenberg studied at the University of Toronto, where he became interested in film and produced two shorts in 16 mm, Transfer and From the Drain, graduating in 1967. His first films in 35 mm were Stereo and Crimes of the Future, both shot in the late 1960s. In these works, Cronenberg established some of the themes and preoccupations that would characterize much of his later work.

In 1975, Cronenberg shot his first commercial feature Shivers (aka “They Came From Within” or “Parasite Murders”), which became one of the fastest recouping movies in the history of Canadian film. His next feature, Rabid, starring Marilyn Chambers, went on to make $7-million on a production investment of little more than $500,000, providing Cronenberg with an impressive track record after just two pictures by 1977. He then directed the drag-racing film Fast Company, inspired in part by his own passion for cars and racing.

He directed “The Brood” in 1979, starring Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar, an artistic breakthrough for Cronenberg, which led him to larger-budgeted and more ambitious films. Scanners, which centered on the telepathic powers of an underground element of society, was aimed at a wider audience than his earlier horror/fantasy films and became his biggest hit yet. The week it opened, Variety listed Scanners as the number one box-office film in North America.

Cronenberg’s next film, “Videodrome,” starring James Woods and rock star Deborah Harry, released in early 1983, moved out of the cult realm into the mainstream cyberpunk market. Blurring the boundaries of reality and consciousness, the film is a high-tech, nightmarish satire involving violence, sexuality and biological horror, all by now familiar Cronenberg themes.

“The Dead Zone” followed in 1984, based on the best-selling novel by Stephen King. Financed by Dino de Laurentiis, released by Paramount and starring Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams and Martin Sheen, the film is an allegorical good-vs.-evil story revolving around the fate of a man cursed with power to see into the future of those he touches. The most mainstream of Cronenberg’s films, “The Dead Zone” still retains the director’s identifiable style and design and went on the earn three out of the five Avoriaz Film Festival prizes of that year as well as seven Edgar Allen Poe award nominations in the U.S.A.

Mel Brooks then approached Cronenberg to direct “The Fly” for Twentieth Century Fox, starring Geena Davis and Jeff Goldblum. “The Fly” was a huge popular and critical success for Cronenberg, earning many accolades, including an Oscar for Best Special Effects/Makeup and a shared jury Prize at the Avoriaz Festival. A remake of the 1958 horror classic, Cronenberg’s “The Fly” was a reconceptualization of the original, and was successful as a horror-fantasy film and as a compelling love story

Next came “Dead Ringers” starring Jeremy Irons and Genevieve Bujold, a psychological thriller about inseparable twin brothers who work as gynecologists and love the same woman, with tragic results. The film was a departure for Cronenberg who described it as more naturalistic. Nonetheless, “Dead Ringers” continued Cronenberg’s fascination with the darker side of human psychology and behavior. “Dead Ringers” won accolades from the L.A. film critics for Best Director

In 1989, Cronenberg began writing the screenplay for his version of William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch.” For artistic and practical reasons, “Naked Lunch” was not a literal translation, but a fusion of Cronenberg’s own work with that of Burroughs. Shot in Toronto in 1991, the film starred Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Monique Mercure, Nicholas Campbell, Michael Zelniker and Roy Scheider. Drawing on Burroughs’ counterculture novel and other Burroughsian sources for the script, Naked Lunch is about the act of writing something dangerous and complex and how it affects the person writing it.

In 1992, Cronenberg directed “M. Butterfly,” starring Jeremy Irons and John Lone, adapted from the Tony-Ward winning Broadway hit based on the true story of a French diplomat, who, for 20 years, was so obsessed with a Chinese diva from the Beijing Opera, he could not discern that the object of his love was really a man. But when they were arrested for espionage, he was forced to face reality. “M. Butterfly” took Cronenberg abroad for the first time to film in China, Hungary, France as well as Canada. The same year, “Naked Lunch” won eight Genie Awards including Best Motion Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. The National Society of Film Critics voted Cronenberg Best Director and his script, Best Screenplay. The New York Film Critics’ Circle awarded him Best Screenplay and Naked Lunch earned a third Best Screenplay award from The Boston Society of Film Critics.

Cronenberg next adapted “Crash” from J.G. Ballard’s cataclysmic novel, Crash, starring Holly Hunter, James Spader, Elias Koteas, Deborah Unger and Rosanna Arquette. A film about technology and eroticism, Crash created international controversy, went on to win the Jury Prize in Cannes Film Festival, 1996 for “Audacity, Daring, and Originality” and collected five Canadian Genies for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing and Best Sound Editing. In addition it won the Golden Reel Award for the Canadian film with the highest Canadian box-office gross.

In 1995, Cronenberg wrote “eXistenZ,” inspired by an interview with author Salman Rushdie, which triggered the idea of an artist who suddenly finds him/herself on a hit list and forced to flee into hiding. He made the hero a game designer thinking that game design could possibly ascend to the level of art. Jennifer Jason Leigh stars as the game designer opposite Jude Law as a novice security guard who links into Leigh’s world. Willem Dafoe, Ian Holm, Sarah Polley, Don McKellar and Callum Keith Rennie play various heroes and villains who weave in and out of the game. “eXistenZ” won a Silver Bear at the 1999 Berlin International Film Festival for Outstanding Artistic Achievement and a Genie Award for editing in addition to Golden Berlin Bear, Catalonian International Film Festival Best Film, Saturn Award and Golden Reel nominations.

His next film, the powerful psychological thriller, “Spider,” starred leading British actor Ralph Fiennes in the title role, with 10-year-old newcomer Bradley Hall playing Spider as a young boy. The stellar supporting cast included Miranda Richardson, Gabriel Byrne, Lynn Redgrave and John Neville. Acclaimed novelist Patrick McGrath adapted the screenplay from his own novel.

Cronenberg has also acted in a number of other films as a way to reconnect with being on a film set during the isolated periods at home when he’s writing screenplays. He had cameo roles in John Landis’ “Into the Night,” “The Dead Zone,” “The Fly” and as a Mafia hitman in Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For.” He starred in Clive Barker’s “Nightbreed” and played a moonshiner in “Moonshine Highway” for Andy Armstrong, appeared in Trial by Jury with Armand De Sante and in John Landis’ “The Stupids.” He also had roles in the Canadian films Henry and Verlin, Blood and Donuts, Don McKellar’s “Last Night” after playing the lead in McKellar’s short film Blue. He also appeared in Russell Mulcahy’s Resurrection, Mike Garris’ The Judge and James Isaac’s Jason X.